Wise throws down the gauntlet, consults with lawyers over her legal “options” against UIUC

In a stunning turn of events tonight at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the chancellor who hired the professor, then fired the professor by claiming he had never been hired in the first place; who resigned in the wake of an ethics scandal over her use of a personal email account (and destruction of emails) in order to hide evidence related to pending litigation over the firing of the professor; whose resignation was rejected by the UI Board of Trustees so that they could formally fire her instead (and thereby avoid paying her a $400,000 bonus previously agreed upon), is now resubmitting her resignation to UIUC and consulting with lawyers in order to consider her legal options and to protect her reputation from the very university that, under her leadership, systematically destroyed the reputation of the professor she fired by claiming he had never been hired in the first place.

Let’s back up.

Last Thursday, Phyllis Wise resigned from her position as chancellor of UIUC. The immediate cause, it seemed, was a federal judge’s ruling that day against UIUC’s motion to dismiss Steven Salaita’s lawsuit. The judge held in no uncertain terms that UIUC’s claim that it had never truly hired Salaita—and thus had not denied him the academic freedom and free speech rights it was bound to honor—was horse manure.

By Friday, however, it became clear that there may have been another reason for Wise’s resignation. UIUC released 1100 pages of emails, many related to the Salaita case, that Wise had sent from her personal account—and that she (or they) had not previously released as they had been obligated to do. In one of those emails, Wise admits that she had been warned by UIUC officials not to use UIUC email “since we are now in the litigation phase,” that she was “even being careful with this email address [her personal account],” and that she was even “deleting after sending” emails.

It was also announced that day that UIUC had conducted an internal ethics probe of Wise’s behavior regarding the emails.

In the next few days, two controversies exploded.

The first was over the email revelations, which not only cast Wise in the potentially criminal role of destroying—or “spoliating”—evidence relevant to a federal lawsuit but also potentially undermined, and rather severely so, UIUC’s own position in the Salaita lawsuit.

The second involved the $400,000 bonus Wise had managed to extract from UI President Timothy Killeen for herself upon her departure. Everyone from the governor of Illinois, who sits on the UIUC Board of Trustees, to Chris Kennedy, the former chair of the Board, criticized the massive payout to Wise. In Kennedy’s words:

I wouldn’t give someone $400,000 to leave peaceably if they (did what she did). My belief is that those emails will reveal behavior that should be investigated. This is actionable information. You can fire someone for cause for this. When have we started giving money to people who (do this)?

Yesterday, the Board reconsidered the payout to Wise. Hoping to avoid litigation (the terms of her contract seemed to stipulate that she was due some kind of bonus upon departure), the Board refused her resignation, made an arrangement for her to assume another position in the university, and voted to initiate proceedings to dismiss her. The operating assumption seemed to be that if the proceedings were successfully concluded against her, Wise would have no standing to sue for breach of contract.

Now we come to tonight’s stunning turn of events. Wise has rejected the university’s offer of a temporary position, has resubmitted her letter of resignation, and has issued the following statement:

In the past week, the news media has reported that I and other campus personnel used personal email accounts to communicate about University business; some reports suggested I did so with illegal intentions or personal motivations. This is simply false. I acted at all times in what I believed to be the best interests of the University. In fact, many of these same communications included campus counsel, Board members, and other campus leaders. 

On Tuesday, in the spirit of placing the University first, I acceded to the Board’s and the President’s request that I tender my resignation. In return, the University agreed to provide the compensation and benefits to which I was entitled, including $400,000 in deferred compensation that was part of my 2011 employment contract. The $400,000 was not a bonus nor a golden parachute; it was a retention incentive that I earned on a yearly basis.

Yesterday, in a decision apparently motivated more by politics than the interests of the University, the Board reneged on the promises in our negotiated agreement and initiated termination proceedings. This action was unprecedented, unwarranted, and completely contrary to the spirit of our negotiations last week. I have no intention, however, of engaging the Board in a public debate that would ultimately harm the University and the many people who have devoted time and hard work to its critical mission. Accordingly, I have again tendered my resignation as Chancellor and will decline the administrative position as advisor to the President.

These recent events have saddened me deeply. I had intended to finish my career at this University, overseeing the fulfillment of groundbreaking initiatives we had just begun. Instead, I find myself consulting with lawyers and considering options to protect my reputation in the face of the Board’s position. I continue to wish the best for this great institution, its marvelous faculty, its committed staff, and its talented students.

Long story short: she’s calling her lawyers, preparing her next move against the University. One expert on these matters predicts she will sue. And UI’s President Killeen admits that the trustees’ move against her, in the words of ABC News, “could bring more litigation.”

This story has more irony than a Brecht play. In no particular order.

1. Salaita is hired but then is told, no, you’re not really hired, so that he can be fired. Wise is forced to resign, but then is told, no, you’re not really resigned, so that she can be fired.

2. Wise complains that not only is she the victim of a university administration that puts politics above principles and reneges on its contracts with its employees—all true, by the way—but that such actions are also “unprecedented.”

3. Suddenly, the UI Board of Trustees is concerned about contracts with its employees.

[Chair of the UI Board of Trustees Ed] McMillan said that his primary concern in negotiations with Wise was to be in compliance with her employment contract.

“That was the important thing from my standpoint, was trying as best we could to be in compliance with the agreement that she signed four years ago. That was the part I was very concerned about,” he said. “The lawyers were concerned about that also.”

4. In an article on Wise’s situation earlier today, before this latest news was announced, Inside Higher Ed devoted four full paragraphs to the, well, read for yourself:

But Raymond Cotton, a lawyer who specializes in contract negotiations on behalf of college and university presidents, was critical of the Illinois board. Wise is not Cotton’s client, and he said he doesn’t know the details of her contract or the board’s thinking. But he predicted that Wednesday’s developments will hurt the university.

Boards and presidents sometimes need to part ways, he said. And presidents may be less likely to do so if they think an agreement they make won’t be honored. And this in turn will affect the way the university is seen by potential candidates to succeed Wise. “As soon as Dr. Wise is gone, the board is going to be looking for a new president,” Cotton said. “What my clients tell me is that one of the key decision points is to look at how the board treated the prior president.”

Further, Cotton said that $400,000 may seem like a lot of money, but that the university was going to get “closure” for paying that sum. Instead, he said, the university may face other costs. “When presidents are fired for cause, they have nothing left to lose, so these cases end up in litigation, and that’s expensive, time-consuming and generally ends up being injurious to the reputation of the university.”

Cotton also said that academics should not be quick to cheer the board’s actions, whatever they think of Wise. University leaders made a deal with Wise and backed out after getting pressure from the governor and other politicians, he noted. “It is rarely in the best interest of a university for a board to yield to political interference by elected politicians,” Cotton said. “A question for the board is: Have they turned over their responsibilities to politicians?”

All this concern for how the Trustees’ move against Wise may negatively affect UIUC’s ability to recruit future presidents and chancellors. Not a word about how UIUC’s actions against Steven Salaita have already—not hypothetically but demonstrably— affected its ability to recruit graduate students, speakers, and new faculty. And all reported without any hint of irony. The pains of power are registered so precisely here. And those of the not-so-powerful?

In the meantime, the boycott continues. Just four days ago, another professor refused an invitation to speak at the UIUC.

Update (12:30 am)

As David Palumbo-Liu asks on Facebook, “She’s worried about her reputation?” That ship sailed long ago.


  1. Denise Cummins, PhD August 14, 2015 at 9:38 am | #

    Enough. This is going too far. Recent UIUC actions constitute is a shining example of how universities respond when they think they have someone on the ropes. In a word, they fight dirty. They seek to destroy their “enemies” by destroying their reputations and making them desperate.

    Wise is certainly guilty of a number of ill-conceived actions. Reneging on Salaita’s offer and refusing to recognize or negotiate with the nontenure faculty union in defiance of the Illinois Supreme Court are two of the most egregious. So why won’t UIUC simply let her resign?

    Instead, certain factions will not be satisfied until they have fully retaliated against her by firing her for cause, demonizing her, and perhaps even getting her convicted for wrong-doing. Reneging on an agreement is a way of saying, “Now you get to see what it feels like.”

    In typical academic fashion, opponents are not defeated. They are demonized, their reputations ruined. These powerful factions are not interested in righting a wrong or ousting bad guys. They are interested in abusing whatever power they have to exact revenge. A classic and frequently used retaliatory ploy is going through email in a fishing expedition to find something they can use to hang their “enemy”.

    Enough. Let her go, and replace her with someone who is truly wise–and benevolent.

    • Christopher Skinner August 14, 2015 at 1:37 pm | #

      She’s guilty of more than ill-conceived actions. The e-mail business alone proves that. If that action, in collusion with her son the lawyer etc., is actually a violation of records’ law in Illinois, she should face sanction. The other issues, and how the craven board has behaved, that you criticize, fair enough.

    • Kirk Ludwig August 14, 2015 at 5:29 pm | #

      The irony here is that it is not the faculty critics of Wise who are refusing to abide by the agreement that the University, through negotiation with the President, made with her. It is the Board of Trustees (or more accurately a three member subset of the Board). There is evidence that it was at the Board’s instigation that Wise sought to rescind the offer, not to say contract, with Professor Salaita. Can the Board then be said to be retaliating against Wise, if what she did she did at their instigation? To say that the Board is retaliating suggests that the Board thought that rescinding the offer (contract) with Salaita was the wrong thing to do and that it was done against the advice and wishes of the Board. But in fact it was the Board that sought to have the offer rescinded and then it was the Board that voted against hiring Salaita when Wise finally forwarded the offer to them. Now, the Board of Trustees are not academics. There are three students, but they don’t have voting powers. So whatever is going on, (a) it can’t be said to be retaliation, and (b) it is not an illustration of how academics respond to opponents. It is an illustration of how non-academics who are political appointees charged with overseeing an important public trust respond when embarrassed by the consequences of their malfeasance. They look for a scapegoat, someone they can blame to deflect attention from their own behavior. In fact, the Board is throwing Wise under the bus. It is betrayal, not retaliation or revenge. It is not saying “Now you get to see what it feels like,” as if they cared what it felt like for Salaita. But I agree that it is an abuse of power, and that these “powerful factions are not interested righting a wrong or ousting the bad guys.” If they were interested in that, they’d have to oust themselves.

  2. Ligurio August 14, 2015 at 10:58 am | #

    But, Corey, that’s because “University leadership” and (to borrow an increasingly frequent term of neofascism) “decision-makers” are so much *more important* to the aims of the current American university than are faculty. The whole business about education and scholarship represents the thankfully dwindling labor costs (“adjunct-utlization” everybody!) of a really wonderful rent-extraction scheme that has proven remarkably effective at stabilizing the economic security of the current political and corporate class in the face of overall cultural and social collapse. Read your Sallust!

  3. Marcy August 14, 2015 at 11:01 am | #

    Wise writes: “…some reports suggested I did so with illegal intentions or personal motivations. This is simply false. I acted at all times in what I believed to be the best interests of the University. In fact, many of these same communications included campus counsel, Board members, and other campus leaders.”

    So… if she did nothing wrong, why does she need to share the blame and point out that the others did it too?

  4. Snarki, child of Loki August 14, 2015 at 11:09 am | #

    Next up: UIUC hires Salaita as it’s next President!

    • Lee Rudolph August 14, 2015 at 4:42 pm | #

      Next up: UIUC hires Salaita as it’s next President!

      …who promptly persuades the Board to boycott, sanction, and divest itself!!

  5. Ligurio August 14, 2015 at 11:26 am | #

    What I find somewhat amusing is Wise’s assumption that, *because* she acted in what *she* believed to be the best interests in the University,” none of her actions were in fact illegal. But, in fact, when elites act in what they take to be the *best interest* of the institutions they control, they usually end up acting illegally.

    BTW, Chris Kennedy ends up looking like an even bigger prick than I had supposed he was.

  6. Steve White August 14, 2015 at 11:30 am | #

    Anyone familiar with employment law will agree $400,000 is a lot of money, but could easily be spent on legal fees in a wrongful discharge litigation.

  7. Snarki, child of Loki August 14, 2015 at 11:40 am | #

    Shocked, I am shocked, that a University that plays fast and loose with employment contracts is playing fast and loose with employment contracts.

  8. brianbreczinski August 14, 2015 at 11:52 am | #

    For only $400,000 they could have had a scapegoat. Now, the involvement of the trustees and politicians is going to come out in one lawsuit or another.

  9. John Protevi August 14, 2015 at 12:52 pm | #

    I agree with the first comment except for this sentence: “In typical academic fashion, opponents are not defeated. They are demonized, their reputations ruined.”

    This is not an “academic” fight, in the usual sense of faculty against each other and admins in intramural struggles. Rather this is an extramural struggle among the UI upper admin, the BoT, and the governor / state legislature. Sure, Wise has made faculty enemies — and she has faculty supporters — but the players here are Kennedy, Easter, the other BoT members, and various players in the state government. None of them have shown any interest whatsoever in what faculty at UIUC (and elsewhere) think.

  10. Glenn August 14, 2015 at 1:17 pm | #

    To not fire Wise is to signal that no behavior by a chancellor is beyond the pale, and that corruption of this type will be tolerated in the future.

    I would not want a new chancellor who would turn down a job offer because the crimes of a predecessor had personal consequences for her.

    Power without accountability absolutely guarantees corruption.

  11. Susan Davis August 14, 2015 at 4:01 pm | #

    Great piece, Corey. If she spills the beans on the trustees and donors who pressured her, she may look very bad to the big corporations, on the boards of which she sits (Nike, for one). Her “reputation” is shot either way.

  12. yastreblyansky August 14, 2015 at 7:44 pm | #

    I love how the blood money is a “retention incentive” which she “earned” and wants to collect, even though nobody wants to retain her and she doesn’t intend to be retained. Language has left the building.

  13. acharn August 14, 2015 at 8:05 pm | #

    She says, “I had intended to finish my career at this University, overseeing the fulfillment of groundbreaking initiatives we had just begun.” For heaven’s sake, she’s 70 years old and supposedly was being returned to her position as a professor. If she was going to be “overseeing groundbreaking initiatives” she wasn’t really resigning, and now she’s revealing it was all a sham (which we knew already, but it’s not supposed to be mentioned by people who have been properly brought up). These really are horrible, horrible people.

  14. Michael Zeldin August 15, 2015 at 10:50 pm | #

    Were it not for the very real tragedy of a young career possiby lost and a family shaken, all of this would appear to be an Italian opera. The music would be outstanding; victims, villains, fools, and an off stage chorus of hand wringers all are in place. The libretto is another matter, as usual. Not even Robin could do much except hope that credulity could be stretched. There were never adults in the room from the beginning and that can be hard to work with even with glorious music. And yet there are so many ways this could end. One scene is certain however and it will bring the audience off their seats., And that is when all of the “older” heads are “fired” one by one by an adult from another state.

  15. Linde M. Brocato August 24, 2015 at 11:14 am | #

    This quote:
    “It is rarely in the best interest of a university for a board to yield to political interference by elected politicians,” Cotton said. “A question for the board is: Have they turned over their responsibilities to politicians?”

    No: they turned them over to DONORS… who give in order to feel important and to buy control of the institution. That’s what I call charitable.

    I’m about to decide that one of the perks of becoming an administrator is that you can lie (like a rug) and yet your word is always unquestionable while that of those will less power than you is simply disregarded.

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